Former Montrose Christian basketball coach Stu Vetter begged Justin Anderson to get his vision checked for years. He noticed Anderson had a tendency to squint, yet the player was always hesitant. He finally took his old coach’s advice last summer before his junior season at Virginia.
“He told me once he got the contacts, he started seeing the basket a lot more clearly,” Vetter said. “Of course, my response to him was, ‘I wish you had seen it more clearly during the four years you were at Montrose.’ ”
Whether it was the contact lenses or the summer he devoted to improving his form, Anderson has been one of the hottest shooters in men’s college basketball this season; he is shooting 49.7 percent from three-point range and averages 13.9 points.
Last year’s ACC sixth man of the year, Anderson has turned into a national player of the year candidate as a reliable offensive force for No. 3 Virginia (20-1, 8-1 ACC), which hosts No. 9 Louisville (19-3, 7-2) on Saturday at 7 p.m.
But after shooting 56.8 percent from the field and 60.9 percent from three-point range in nonconference play, Anderson’s percentages have dipped in recent games as he’s become a marked man for opponents.
In the four games from Boston College through the Duke game, Anderson was 4 for 17 from three-point range and 10 for 33 overall; in conference play, he’s shooting 39.1 percent from three-point range and 40.2 percent from the floor.
As he’s weathered his recent slump, Anderson has tried to fill out the stat sheet in different ways — by getting to the free throw line, making an impact on defense and facilitating for his teammates.
In a victory over North Carolina on Monday, he was 6-for-10 shooting and finished with 16 points and seven assists .
“I was never in a bad place,” Anderson said. “My numbers may say so, but I was never in a bad place.”
Virginia Coach Tony Bennett has said part of the reason Anderson’s shooting percentages skyrocketed this season is because his shot selection improved. The coaching staff charts quality shots from players, taking into account that some are forced because the shot clock might be winding down. He encouraged Anderson to keep shooting as long as he had room, rhythm and his feet set.
Bennett said Anderson missed some shots in recent games he should’ve taken and some he shouldn’t have. It’s a fine line, as he wants Anderson and fellow junior guard Malcolm Brogdon, the team’s two leading scorers, to be aggressive.
But there’s “responsibility within that,” Bennett said.
“The thing I challenge guys on, if they’re missing a few shots or struggling a little bit, is just keep taking good shots, the right kind of shots,” Bennett said. “Don’t force and press to try to get out of a slump. But don’t pass up a rhythm shot if you’re not comfortable. You’ve got to shoot the right shots.”
Anderson didn't change anything about his daily routine when his shooting percentages fell off for those four games. He said the only time he has been frustrated with his shooting this season was against Duke, and that was because the Cavaliers suffered their first loss of the season. He was 1 for 6 from three-point range against the Blue Devils, but Anderson said most of the shots he took looked and felt good.
In the games where he has struggled with his shot, he has found other ways to make his presence known, whether it be on defense or getting to the foul line. Against Boston College, he was 0 for 8 but finished with eight points, all on free throws.
Anderson spent the summer in Chicago working with basketball trainer Steve Pratt, who tweaked his shooting form and put him through a series of drills to address his balance and footwork. Last season, he shot 29.4 percent from three-point range and averaged 7.8 points.
“It’s all just to stay sharp,” Anderson said of his summer program. “It’s not about trying to shoot as hard as you can or jump as high as you can and all of that. It’s about all of the technical things that we tried to fix while I was out there.”
The consistent threat from three-point range in addition to his 6-foot-6, 228-pound frame has made Anderson into a desirable NBA prospect, and several mock drafts project him as a first-round pick. Bennett said he hasn’t talked with Anderson about the possibility of him skipping his senior year to enter the draft after this season. Vetter said NBA scouts and general managers have called to inquire about Anderson in past years, but those calls have increased this season.
Anderson’s draft status could fluctuate as the season goes on, and his shooting going forward inevitably will affect that. Vetter used to tell Anderson to strive to be more like former Montrose Christian and Maryland star Greivis Vasquez, focusing on filling out several categories on a stat sheet instead of just the points total.
That’s advice Anderson didn’t hesitate to take from Vetter.
“I just have to make sure I stay the course and stay confident,” Anderson said. “You’ve got to find a way to have a different impact on the game.”